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Maureen Lane

City Council Hearings on School Grades: We Need Conversation, Not Just Theater

Monday's City Council hearing on the school grading system was filled with theatrics -- everything from "boos and hisses" to "fliers with the letter F printed in thick black ink" to education officials running around outside in circles to avoid having to actually talk to critics.

There's certainly a good side to these kinds of theatrics, which keep an issue in the news and help to keep policy alive in the public consciousness. However, in order to have real policy discussion we need to get beyond the political theater and find a way to have an active discussion and real conversation with policy makers.

In the past I've writtenabout the new grading system in New York City. Monday's raucous City Council hearing centered on this new system.

A Times story on the hearing highlighted that, in addition to schools showing improvement in their student’s state test scores, it was clear City Council members and some parents have concerns about the use of school grading. Some Council members, parents and other stakeholders thought there needs to be more discussion about school class sizes, security, graduation and retention.

The Times reports that during the hearing James Liebman, the Department of Education official who designed the grading system,

“repeatedly turned to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University as evidence of widespread public support for the system, which assigns schools a grade of A through F. In that poll, 75 percent of the public school parents who knew the grade of their child’s school said they thought the evaluation was fair. But of the 1,007 voters polled, only 143 were public school parents.

“If you’re telling me that the average person understood the report cards because the Quinnipiac poll said so, that’s not reality,” said Lewis A. Fidler, a councilman from Brooklyn.

Mr. Fidler said most parents who had children in schools that received A’s and B’s were largely satisfied with the grades but had done little to understand the complicated methodology.

“I wish we could just teach,” he said, prompting a round of applause and whoops from the audience. “I don’t think you’re being fair about who is being stigmatized. You’re glossing over that.”

When I speak to high schoolers, it is clear they feel the sting of a low grade for their school. Often policy makers draw heavy handed conclusions about what kinds of students can make it to college. With income gaps widening to historic levels, it is a college education that can move students from poverty and towards economic upward mobility. Stigmatizing students can prevent them from advancing.

The Times noted that Liebman ducked out of the meeting without engaging with parents and others who had assembled to speak with him. It reminds me of Mayor Bloomberg claiming parent participation in the grading system, even though it seems that the administration did not listen to parents as much as just attend a meeting with them.

I know some Council meetings can feel staged but they can be a real opportunity for public active listening. Council members, city administrators, community stakeholders and the mayor’s office can rethink how the democratic process is actually practiced so that in the future important decision-makers don’t have to duck and run but rather prefer to stay and engage with the public. In the near future, I'll be writing about ways that Council hearings can be changed structurally so that Council members can talk with, instead of at, the public.

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Posted at 11:58 AM, Dec 14, 2007 in Education
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